William Eichler 21 August 2017

Local government reforms undermined by ‘depressing’ lack of female representation, report finds

Council chiefs say progress in achieving gender balance in local government should be made at a ‘faster pace’ after think tank warns of a lack of women in top jobs.

The progressive think tank IPPR has produced a report demonstrating how institutions which claim to be bringing ‘power closer to the people’ are unrepresentative and suffer from a ‘gender imbalance’.

It found only 4% of the leadership of combined authorities are women and all directly-elected mayors are men.

The report also discovered women councillors are less likely to have responsibility for key devolution deal policy areas.

It found of the 160 women who are currently cabinet members in councils, the words business, procurement, jobs, regeneration and finance are unlikely to feature in their portfolios.

In contrast, the words health, children, community, social care and wellbeing feature much more heavily.

The think tank concluded this underrepresentation of women was due to the fact that they do not make up a high proportion of political party membershi - typically the first step in participating in local politics.

Only 34% of women have joined a political party. Women make up just 38% of Labour party members and only 36% of Conservative party members.

One of the fundamental problems, according to Power to the People?, is the selection process for councillors by local parties. Described as ‘opaque’ in the report, this process is very informal and shaped by networks, environment and culture.

Contrasting this to the formal processes of selection at the national level, the report points out decentralised processes ‘tend to favour well networked and resourced candidates.’

To achieve equal numbers of male and female councillors, IPPR calculated 3028 more women will need to be successfully elected - an increase of over 50%.

‘This report rightly highlights that progress in achieving gender balance in local government should be made at a faster pace,’ said Cllr Marianne Overton, vice chair of the Local Government Association (LGA).

‘All parts of local government must be reflective of the communities they represent and be at the forefront of driving the level of change required.

‘However, as the report also highlights, change will only come about through a mix of support programmes and direct action from political parties to encourage and sustain aspiring female councillors.’

Cllr Overton added the LGA’s ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign had a ‘large focus’ on encouraging women to enter politics. She also said the LGA was supporting the Women’s Local Government Society’s project to celebrate the 2018 centenary of women getting the vote.

Welcoming IPPR’s report, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and leader of Bradford Council, said ‘Local authorities should reflect the diversity of the communities we serve and I absolutely support the call for greater commitments to address the depressingly small number of senior female leaders in our sector.

‘I am proud to be a female council leader – supported by a female chief executive, Kersten England – and to have been recently appointed the only woman in the country to lead a combined authority.

‘It cannot be right though in 2017, when more women are being elected to parliament, that my situation is still the exception and not the norm in local government.’

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